SPIEGEL Interview With the EU's Environment Commissioner 'I Don't Understand Why Bush Refuses to Take The Obvious Steps'

The European Union's Commissioner for the Environment Stavros Dimas made headlines recently with his decision to swap his Mercedes for a Japanese hybrid. DER SPIEGEL spoke with him about the climate deal reached at last week's EU summit, the US's contribution to global warming, and why the Germans don't make environmentally friendly cars.

European Union Commissioner for the Environment Stavros Dimas made headlines recently when he announced he was going to use a Japanese hybrid for his work.

European Union Commissioner for the Environment Stavros Dimas made headlines recently when he announced he was going to use a Japanese hybrid for his work.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Dimas, at the Brussels summit the Europeans agreed, by the skin of their teeth, to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and focus more on renewable energy sources. The participants gave themselves a hearty pat on the pack for this achievement. Has the world's climate now been saved?

Dimas: We have completed important steps on the road to limiting global warming as much as possible. But of course it will take many other measures as well.

SPIEGEL: Environmental groups are calling it window dressing.

Dimas: It's obvious that what we have done just now won't be enough. But let's take a look at the facts. We intend to satisfy 10 percent of our fuel consumption needs from renewable raw materials in the future. We are placing our bets on renewable energy sources, and we have committed to a 20 percent reduction (relative to 1990 levels) in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. If we compare this to what seemed possible two years ago, these are revolutionary advances...

SPIEGEL: ... that exist only on paper so far. The EU has made many resolutions in the past that have been quickly forgotten.

Dimas: No-one will be able to ignore these binding resolutions that easily. We will certainly encounter setbacks along the way, but the train is already in motion, and all 27 EU countries are on board. The EU Commission will now begin directly transforming the agreements into law.

SPIEGEL: Many elements of the climate package that the EU heads of state have now approved are questionable in substance and controversial when it comes to implementation. For example, it still remains completely unclear, now that the summit has ended, exactly which countries are to save how much carbon dioxide.

Dimas: Unfortunately that's the way it sometimes goes in the EU. Everyone wants action. But when it comes down to it, implementation is a problem for some. That's when it becomes clear that there is also a lot of hypocrisy. But I am aware of this, and yet I remain convinced that in the foreseeable future we will come to agreement over the issues that are currently unresolved. The pressures of reality force us to act. If we do not do something about climate change today our children will pay the price in the future.

SPIEGEL: Experts predict that the EU will not even attain the meager targets of the 1997 Kyoto protocol.

Dimas: Some member states, like Germany, will make it. Others will not. Those are the ones we have to work on. More has to be done, and this is where I place a great deal of faith in the presiding president of the European Council, German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

SPIEGEL: Do you and the chancellor also agree that one shouldn't be too hasty about abandoning nuclear energy?

Dimas: The EU Commission does not give recommendations as to how each of the 27 member states should structure its energy supply. Some countries, like France, derive up to 80 percent of their electricity from nuclear power plants. Finland is in the process of building a new one. Sweden and Germany plan to phase out their nuclear power plants, and others don't have any at all.

SPIEGEL: But EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs says that adequate climate protection cannot be achieved without nuclear energy.

Dimas: I disagree. We cannot ignore nuclear energy, but neither is it a magical solution to all of our problems.

SPIEGEL: The proponents of nuclear power plants say that they produce cheap electricity without emitting any greenhouse gases. Is this incorrect?

Dimas: Yes, because it isn't the whole story. First of all, the disposal of radioactive waste remains an unresolved issue. Second, the eventual demolition and safe removal of nuclear facilities is not only an ecological, but also a significant economic problem. Third, it is unclear how we can guarantee the safety of nuclear waste over the course of many generations. Who will pay for it, and who will manage it?

SPIEGEL: The industry has established billions in reserves specifically for that purpose.

Dimas: It will hardly be sufficient. We are talking about centuries in which we will have nuclear waste. Besides, nuclear energy is just as non-renewable as oil or gas, because uranium reserves are also limited.

SPIEGEL: What is your recommendation when it comes to the energy mix?

Dimas: The expansion of renewable forms of energy, such as biomass, solar, wind and water, seems inevitable to me.

SPIEGEL: What about coal?

Dimas: We have been quite successful at making modern coal power plants cleaner. Nevertheless, carbon dioxide is still a problem when it comes to burning brown coal. The costly method of underground sequestration, which is now being tested, can also be little more than an interim solution. Perhaps we will discover better ways to turn coal into electricity one day without imposing such a heavy burden on the environment. Otherwise coal will remain a highly problematic source of energy.

SPIEGEL: A new coal power plant goes on line almost every week in China. Doesn't this cancel out all European efforts to protect the climate?

Dimas: This is a big problem. But even China has now recognized the environmental catastrophe it is headed for as a result of the unrestrained exploitation of natural resources. You don't just smell the air pollution in Beijing; you can actually touch it. Without radical measures, emerging nations like China and India will be pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2020 than all current industrialized nations combined.

SPIEGEL: What role does the United States play in your scenario?

Dimas: The United States is now the country with the world's highest emissions of carbon dioxide, and energy use continues to grow. The effects are devastating. Because the United States did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, other countries like China, Brazil, Mexico and India have been hesitant to enact urgently needed climate protection measures.

SPIEGEL: Will this change with the next administration in Washington?

Dimas: I am certain of that. And I don't understand why the Bush administration still refuses to take the steps that are obvious to anyone. A more climate-neutral economy holds great promise, not just for the environment. This is now clear to many US politicians.

SPIEGEL: But it doesn't seem to be as clear to the German automobile industry. Otherwise it wouldn't oppose your environmental requirements so vehemently. Is the German automobile industry behind the times?

Dimas: No, I have great confidence in the German auto industry. The car was invented in Germany, after all.

SPIEGEL: But filters for diesel exhaust particles were long used primarily in French and Japanese cars. Both countries also build some of the most environmentally friendly cars. Why?

Dimas: I also wonder where German engineers, with their tremendous history, are when it comes to incorporating the latest in exhaust gas filtering into vehicles. As it happens, others are making the money in this field. It's clear that the old technology will not survive.

SPIEGEL: Perhaps carmakers will continue to achieve nice little compromises, just as they have done in the past, so that they won't have to do too much.

Dimas: I don't think so. Things are different now, because too many people now recognize the fatal consequences we could face if we do not act now. For example, particulate matter from automobile exhaust fumes claims about 300,000 lives in the EU each year, from respiratory illnesses and their consequences. Under these circumstances, there can be no compromises with the automobile industry that come at the cost of health.

SPIEGEL: Is that why you are now switching to a Japanese car?

Dimas: My driver told me three months ago that we should lease a new car for official business. Of course, the car we ordered was a Toyota Prius with an environmentally friendly hybrid engine.

SPIEGEL: Can an EU commissioner really drive a Japanese car?

Dimas: Of course. This hybrid is at the top of the German Automobile Club's list of the most environmentally friendly cars.

SPIEGEL: But the VW Polo BlueMotion is also on that list.

Dimas: The Polo is an excellent car, but I need a vehicle for long journeys which, like the Prius, is also big enough to work in. But I do wonder why there isn't a German, Italian or French hybrid that I could drive.

Interview conducted by Sebastian Knauer, Hans-Jürgen Schlamp, and Markus Verbeet


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